Adult Learner Student Rights

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Fortunately, most adult learners come to certification-based classes self-motivated to learn everything they can. This is a luxury that many teachers of regular classes from K-20 and beyond rarely get to enjoy.

The adult learner’s motivation to learn makes many of the normal class problems such as the sleeping student and the under-prepared student disappear in general, but the adult learner also presents other opportunities (aka problems). The adult learner rightfully deserves to be treated as a self-motivated adult, but this learner also presents some of the same classroom-management problems of a normal class.

Adults in class can be a joy or a nightmare depending on their commitment to learning and your ability to handle them in class. The same is true for all students regardless of age. Again, most adult learners are at least motivated to learn. Of course, there is the odd disinterested person in class who is there because his employer says he has to be there, but this is usually the exception. For the most part, adult learners want to learn. Clarifying what each student wants to learn is your challenge.

Every class should always begin with a discussion of class structure and rules, as well as each student’s expectations and your expectations and plans as an instructor. Missed expectations typically form the major portion of the adult learner’s complaints about a class. The students’ expectations may range from passing a certification examination to just getting a completion certificate to learning in detail everything possible about the material so that they can perform on the job.

Do not assume that all your students want the same thing, and certainly do not assume that you know their expectations. Take the time to learn their expectations so you can address all reasonable expectations and clarify at the beginning of class which expectations are unreasonable.

For example, let’s say that Student A just wants to pass the certification examination with as little effort as possible. Student B, on the other hand, wants it all. She wants to know everything technical about the subject matter, be prepared to pass the certification exam and be allowed to work in the lab until 10 p.m. each night to accomplish these goals.

Most likely Student A’s expectations are a subset of what you intended to present anyway; the challenge will be keeping this student engaged for the whole class. Student B’s expectations from the class itself are also largely in line. The problem, though, could be that Student B’s expectation of using the lab until 10 p.m. every night may not be possible. The lab availability or lack thereof must be clarified up front to avoid a disagreeable situation later in the class.

Once expectations have been exposed and discussed, you have the basis for going forward with the class to meet those expectations, and the adult student has enough information to determine whether your class is or is not appropriate for him. Either of these is an appropriate path early in the course. The latter is a disaster if it occurs later in the class.

In addition to having their expectations met, adult learners deserve to have their questions addressed. All questions must be treated as valid questions meriting a courteous and accurate response. No single student, though, should be allowed to monopolize your time or the classroom discussion time. You, as the instructor, have a responsibility to keep your treatment of all students fair and even. Adult learners deserve to be treated equally, even if some are not as likeable as others in the class.

Adult students have the right to expect you not to embarrass them in class. Never make an example of a student who is disinterested, unprepared or just plain disturbing the class by calling on him to answer a question. Rather, just walk over and stand by that student while you continue lecturing. Disruptive behavior will almost always stop, and interest is likely to improve. It’s hard to ignore someone who is standing by you lecturing.

Adult students have the right to learn at their own pace. Additionally, they have the right to not complete every exercise or review question. Of course, if completion of an exercise affects the student’s lab partner, you have a challenge. You could offer to complete the lab on behalf of the disinterested student, or you could ask if the partner might want to complete the entire lab by himself. Also, the student who wishes to jump ahead or lag behind should be allowed to do so as long as such behavior does not affect others in the class.

All students and most definitely adult students deserve professional respect, regardless of their background, likeability or classroom expectations. You, as the instructor, owe them this above all. While younger students might tolerate classroom-management techniques that include embarrassment or guilt, adult students are not likely to tolerate such handling.

Ann Beheler is executive director/dean of Collin County Community College’s Engineering Technology Division, which houses one of the nine Cisco CCNP academic instructor training centers in the world. E-mail Ann at


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